by Michael McCarthy
If you’re a big fan of singer/songwriter fare then you might already be a fan of Nashville’s Daniella Mason, whose touching song “Sleep” was posted on Youtube approximately five years ago and has since been watched over 26,000 times. It was followed up with such emotive songs as “Shade of You” and “Where Are You,” the two year old videos for which you can still find on Youtube. That said, a few years ago Daniella discovered that pop is more her wheelhouse. While she was never a caterpillar, you could say that she went into a cocoon, honing her electro/pop skills, and emerged as a gorgeous butterfly. On August 12th she released her major label debut, Technicolour, on Warner Bros. The delicious five song EP features a new electro-pop flavored take on “Shade of You” along with “Technicolour,” which is practically a club banger, and the Robyn-esque “Distant Lover.” This brings us to my two favorite tracks, the Kylie meets Björk-flavored “All I Want” and the subtle, retro-minded “Planet.” What I love about Daniella’s music is that I can listen to it regardless of what kind of mood I’m in, whether I’m craving big mainstream pop anthems or artsier electro-pop nuggets. It would seem there’s nothing she can’t do, the one common thread in her songs – aside from her voice – being that she’s a storyteller and a damn good one at that. Read on for the stories she told us and check out her tunes while you’re at it.
MM: I understand you traveled the world with your missionary father before you settled in Nashville. What are some of the places where you lived?
DM: I traveled all over. We started out a lot in Mexico and Central and South America. And then as my life went on we started to go into parts of Europe and into Africa. It was amazing. I spent a lot of time by myself in the end, but I ended up starting to write songs then because I had so much time by myself. So, I guess it worked out for me.
MM: Did you go to Nashville on your own or did you wind up there with the missionary work?
DM: I actually moved to Nashville to go to school when I was 18 and then I ended up staying here because I loved it so much. So, I’ve been here about ten years. And the community is amazing and it really played a huge part in the artist I became. It was awesome.
MM: Were you doing any singing when your father was doing the missionary work?
DM: I was, yeah. Both my parents are musicians. My mom passed away a few years ago but we were all musicians and we would sing together, and we would do a lot of humanitarian work, but sometimes we would do disaster relief and we would go in and bring in supplies and bring in doctors. But then we would have these little nights where we would sit around and sing with the kids. It always brought such a new level of healing and joy beyond what anything else could do because it was having to do with their heart. That’s what I grew up doing. I went to Haiti after the earthquake and that’s kind of when I really knew I wanted to do music. I saw their faces change. I couldn’t heal them. I couldn’t change their bodies or circumstances but I could bring a little bit of joy and this universal language to it. So, I’ve kind of been doing it all my life, all over the world, with my parents and then I started branching out and doing my own stuff when I was probably 15 and so I’ve been doing it a long time. I definitely feel like there’s kind of a deeper purpose there. I think that’s probably because of my upbringing. It’s kind of in everything that I do now.
MM: Was music what you were studying when you first went to Nashville?
DM: Yeah. I actually was a musical theatre major. I’ve done tons of musical theatre and I’ve done films as well. I’m an actor as well. I started in that and then I ended up transferring over to commercial music because I kind of realized that’s how I wanted to spend doing 24/7 with my life. So, I still do acting and I love it and I’m continuing to work in that field. In college I just decided that I wanted to spend my time and money on music. I’m definitely a nerd. I did all of the music classes and all that, harmonies and ear training. All the piano classes and the jazz piano. It was amazing. I had an amazing time.
MM: Did you know how to play piano prior to when you went there?
DM: Yeah. I’ve been playing piano since I was three. And sometimes I’ll still play in shows and stuff but I’m transitioning to just my voice being my main instrument. And I’m not nearly as good [at piano] as I should be. I’ve been playing for like 25 years or something. But it’s definitely in my blood. My mom made me take piano every week since I was three and I did some competitions and I played classical piano. It was not a choice in my house. [Laughs] It was expected. Which I’m very thankful for.
MM: What does your father think about your pop music today?
DM: [Laughs] He loves it. He’s a huge fan. He was in a rock band in the ’70’s. He kind of has a little bit more of a colorful past, which I love. And he loves what I do. He’s so supportive and he’s definitely more laid back. He’s not like one of the more religious. I don’t know what the word for it is. He’s definitely more laid back and open. I’m very thankful that he’s so supportive and loving toward my career. [Laughs] My choices in life. I think he knows that I at least aspire to bring a lot of joy and love to every room I come into. Every situation I come into. I think that’s all he really wanted for me. To be able to do that. We get along. We like each other and he loves to tell all his friends about my music. [Laughs]
MM: Your older music is more of a traditional singer/songwriter style, whereas your new music is more of a mainstream with a little bit of electro-pop. When did you decide to make that shift?
DM: I was doing singer/songwriter up until about early 2013. You can hear a little bit on my former album, some of the electro-pop coming into play – so I had a hint of that – but I really started to come into that new style in 2013. I wanted to do it and I didn’t really know how to do it and I had a friend here in Nashville, and we had written together a lot, and he came to me one day and said, “I think I know what you want to do and I think that I’m the person to help you do that.” And so together we sort of started on this new thing. And “All I Want,” which is on this new EP, is one of the songs that came out of that. So, that was sort of like my first big step into the electronic world. I think everything still has this very musical presence. You can hear that we’re nerds. But try to make it really palatable.
I think electronic pop has so much energy and it just makes you feel so many things. I think what I love about singing over more electronic instruments is that I felt like my voice actually felt more at home with synth than it did with acoustic instruments. I’ve always felt like the frequency of my voice was sort of hiding with some of the acoustic instruments. So, once I started singing over synth I was like wait, this feels really good. It was very at home. The chamber of my voice fits in this sonic spectrum. Really beautifully with all of these electronic instruments. So, once I did “All I Want,” I was like, I’m sold. That’s what I want to do forever. Maybe not forever – I might change eventually – but over the next three years I was working on this EP and the next coming full-length album. So that’s sort of where I’ve been living the last three years. And it’s been amazing. I loved the journey of just getting to know all of the different technologies and learning how to produce and learning about all of these different synthesizers. It’s been amazing. I love it.
MM: There were some songs you had on Spotify – older songs that I saw – but I didn’t see “Sleep” and “Where Are You,” which I saw on Youtube and I really liked. Were those ever released?
DM: Yeah. My full-length album I released in 2011. Back when I was still in college. Those two songs are probably the ones where you could start to hear the hint of the electronic. That was where I was starting to just experiment. And those are two of my favorites from that album. I decided to take that album down just because I was really going in a different direction and I couldn’t choose which songs to leave or take down. But I still have them on my Soundcloud just because I don’t want to like hide my journey. So, if anybody wanted to venture back to 2011 and experience 22 year old Daniella – I don’t remember, 24, maybe – they can go back and listen. But “Sleep” and “Where Are You” are my favorites, too. I’m glad that you like them.
MM: When you write songs, where do you usually start? Do they start with beats or a synth part or… how does the magic happen?
DM: It kind of changes depending on the situation. I’m definitely a lyricist. I have thousands of notes saved on my phone. Just lyrics that come to me throughout the day through life experiences and observations. So, I kind of have those stockpiled. When I get in a writing room the melody and the lyric will come out together. So, sometimes we’ll start with melody and lyrics. Sometimes we’ll start with a track. Sometimes we’ll start with the beat. It all depends on who’s in the room. I’m a pretty fluid writer. I’m not really set in my ways. One thing I’ve learned, being in Nashville, with some of the best musicians and writers, is I try to just go into a writing room and see who’s there and get to know the vibe in the room and react to what else is happening.
I do write by myself a lot as well. Those are more like vomit, I like to call it. I’ll just sit down at the piano and in twenty minutes I’ll have the song, the melody, the chorus. When I wrote “All I Want,” that was the case. I wrote it in 20 minutes. It just came pouring out of me because I was going through something at the time. So, I do still have a few songs that are still that emotional response to what’s happening. Even when I’m going into writing rooms and it’s on my schedule and I know I’m writing with this person on this day, I still try to pull everything from my life. I think I’m a storyteller at the root and I just try to tell really good stories. I think stories are kind of the thing that can change the world. That can change people’s minds. Stories make you realize that other humans go through things. It brings humanity into the picture. So even when I’m going into set up sessions I really still try to pull from that. I don’t know if that really answered your question. [Laughs]
MM: I know you opened for Demi Lovato on her Neon Lights tour in 2014. Do you want to have major, mainstream success like she has or do you want to be more like a Lana Del Rey, kind of under the radar a bit?
DM: That’s an interesting question. I definitely lean more towards the Lana Del Rey in the way that I see myself in the world, but at the same time I’m very open to the process. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I don’t know how people are gonna react to my music. I would love for the songs that I write and the stories that I tell to reach as many people as possible, but I do think maybe my aesthetic and the things that I draw inspiration from probably leans more toward the alternative space, but I do know at the end of the day I write pop music. So, I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I enjoy being in that blurry space. It’s kind of who I am, you know? I’ve lived a lot of life. I have a lot of colorful stories to tell. I have a really kind of specific taste when it comes to spacial aesthetic and the musical vibe that I have and I would love both artists like Demi and artists like Lana Del Rey. I feel pretty good about being somewhere in the middle.
MM: At this point would you prefer to continue opening for someone like Demi or Katy Perry or would you rather headline your own club shows?
DM: Next step I think is to maybe open on a club tour. Find an artist that I think I fit well with. They enjoy me, I enjoy them. That sort of really nice alternative space. I can also fit in a pop space. I would love to start there. I am headlining a few club shows right now. I have the EP coming out. Just doing a few release shows. So, I kind of want to build it slowly. I would love to just garnish more fans, see who likes what I do and eventually I would love to kind of headline my own club tour and be able to create this really amazing environment for the shows with the lighting and really make it an art experience. That would be amazing. That would be a dream come true. I’m very open to most people who want to collaborate. I love joining together with other artists and creating a unique experience for audience members. But I would definitely say in the next few months we’re looking at clubs. Headlining some, opening for some. Trying to get the music out there.
MM: I know you co-wrote a couple of Nick Jonas songs. Have you written for any other artists?
DM: Yes, Nick and I are friends. We love collaborating and I was super happy to have a couple of songs. On this last album I was able to be featured, which sort of was an accident, but I was so happy that it happened. And then I’ve written for some other more alternative artists here in Nashville. I just wrote on a friend of mine – her name is Eza – and she’s coming out with an amazing project. I’ve written a song for Young Summer, who’s also in that sort of alternative space.
One thing I really enjoy is [that] I’ve started to work with younger female artists, who are kind of just getting started. It’s really fun for me because I think one of my strengths is helping other artists tell their stories. So, I started working with some of these younger girls who are in the alternative pop space, similar to me. I love writing with them and helping produce their stuff and really giving them a voice. It’s easier to get taken advantage of in this industry if you’re a young woman. I have a couple of EPs I’ve been working on with some of those girls that will be coming out probably next year. That’s been really fun.
I would definitely say one of the better collaborations I’ve had has been Nick. That was amazing because we’ve been friends for a long time and we hadn’t ever worked together. It just sort of happened. He had heard “All I Want” and he was like, “Wait. I think maybe we should write.” And we wrote “Push” on his last album. That was me helping him tell his story. He was going through something and – I think because we are friends – he was able to definitely open up to me and we were able to tell that story. Even on this last album, “When We Get Home,” it sounds light-hearted but the lyrics are a little bit darker if you look at them. It was another thing he was going through. He was able to tell me the story and we were able to write it. I think I’m definitely the person you bring in when you want things to be a bit more emotional. [Laughs] That’s what I’ve noticed through the course of my career. I do believe I bring some pop sensibilities to the table as well. Maybe more emotion than pop. [Laughs]
MM: What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
DM: Probably Regina Spektor. She was a huge influence for me in high school and up until then I hadn’t really ever bought my own music. I listened to my parents music. They had all these amazing records from the ’70’s. Creedence Clearwater Revival and James Taylor. So, I had really grown up on that and a lot of Billie Holiday and some of those iconic jazz legends. In high school, it was either Regina Spektor or Damien Rice. Those were my first step in curating my own taste and not just listening to what my parents did or my friends. And they are still huge influences for me. I think I’m right about that. [Regina Spektor’s] “Fidelity,” definitely.
MM: Which Regina Spektor album was the one that made you a fan?
DM: I can’t remember. I would have to look at the years probably. What years they came out. The first song I ever heard of hers was “Samson.” I heard “Samson” and I was like, woah, who is this? I saw her live a couple of years ago at the Ryman here in Nashville. And it was like all of my days had been leading up to that. She’s like a queen in my book. I love her. I think you can probably tell I’ve listened to her when you listen to my music. Especially my old stuff.
MM: What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve ever been given and who gave it to you?
DM: OK, is it about music or about life?
MM: It can be either or.
DM: That’s a really good question. I remember – I have a specific memory of one of my first days in college – the head of our musical theatre department said to us – she was talking more to musicians in general – she said if you can see yourself doing anything else, do that. She was like, “This is really hard.” It was really good advice for me. So, I sort of pair that with the advice Whoopi Goldberg offers in Sister Act 2. She says, “If you wake up every day and you think about singing and you go to sleep at night thinking about singing then you’re a singer.” Those two pieces of advice – even though they seem kind of opposite – have been really huge for me. I knew when my musical theatre director said that, this is what I’m gonna do. I can’t see myself doing anything else. This is it for me. And it doesn’t matter how long it takes and it doesn’t matter how broke I am, I want to do this. I think that’s been a huge piece of advice for me. It’s something I’ve taught from as well. I taught at the University of Nashville for a bit and it was something I told my students. I was like, “Hey, you’re really talented. You could do this. But if you could see yourself doing something else that you would enjoy just as much, just do that.” I wanted them to know it’s not all glamorous. It’s not all fun and games, but it’s worth it if it’s what you’re supposed to do and what you’re born to do.
MM: What is your favorite holiday and why?
DM: Probably Thanksgiving. Because it doesn’t have the pressure of Christmas. Even though I love Christmas, [on Thanksgiving] the food is super good and you get to hang out with family and you don’t have to worry about all of the extra stuff. And Thanksgiving food is my favorite food. But I will say Christmas is a very close second because I love Christmas and I have great memories of Christmas. Obviously, Christmas music will change any day into a good one. I’ll say that’s a close second.
MM: Do you think you’ll release a Christmas single?
DM: I did release a Christmas single. I did a cover of “Wonderful Christmastime.” We just released it to Soundcloud and Spotify because we thought it was cool. We never really did a lot with it. So, I’m wondering if I’ll just bring that back and really try to give it a shot. I really like the cover we did and it was really fun to do it. I think I’ll push that this year. I wouldn’t mind doing more because I love Christmas. I love listening to old classics. We’ll see. Maybe as we get closer I’ll get in my studio and produce up some little covers, which would be really fun.
MM: What song is stuck in your head right now?
DM: I hear a lot of songs that are really stuck in my head. There’s this song – it’s a “Flume” song. I think Kai is the feature. [Editor’s note: It’s “Never Be Like You.”] I love that song. I should look up the lyrics because I’m mumbling it all the time. The melodies are so catchy.
MM: What is your biggest pet peeve?
DM: I don’t love spelling errors in E-mails and text messages. It annoys me so much. [Laughs] But I’m totally this person that one day I’ll have this giant spelling error. So then I’m a total hypocrite. But I’m kind of a grammar person. I’m a spelling person. Especially with business E-mails. I like everything to be spelled correctly and good grammar. One of my guys at my record label, who does my online content, he’s like my favorite E-mail correspondent. He sends fabulous E-mails. They’re like bullet points and the indentations are all lined up and everything looks so good. I told him, “I think that you are my E-mail soulmate.” [Laughs] I love him. But, yeah, when I get E-mails that are kind of all over the place with grammar and spelling it annoys, but I’m trying to move past it. That, and I don’t like when silverware drawers are messy.
MM: I hate that, too. [Laughs]
DM: I’m glad you can understand where I’m coming from.
MM: If you could have any person alive or dead come to one of your shows, who would you want to see you perform?
DM: Probably Prince. I actually have a funny story with him. The day that I met with Warner his masters for his most recent album arrived at Warner, the two albums. It was so cool because someone had to fly there and pick them up in a briefcase that was purple and silver and it had passcodes on it. It was this total glamorous thing and it arrived the day that I met with my label that I ended up signing to. It was such a serendipitous moment. I was like, I would love if I could ever meet him or collaborate with him. Or if he ever heard anything that I did. And then, of course, he passed away. If anybody could come back and see me perform it would probably be him. Maybe he’s watching from behind the curtain.
Listen to Daniella Mason’s Technicolour EP: